EGU General Assembly 2020
© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Episodic stress tensor and fluid pressure cycling in subducting oceanic crust during Northern Hikurangi slow slip events

Emily Warren-Smith1, Bill Fry1, Laura Wallace1, Enrique Chon2, Stuart Henrys1, Anne Sheehan2, Kimihiro Mochizuki3, Susan Schwartz4, Katherine Woods5, John Ristau1, and Spahr Webb6
Emily Warren-Smith et al.
  • 1GNS Science, Lower Hutt, New Zealand (
  • 2University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, USA
  • 3Earthquake Research Institute, University of Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan
  • 4University of California at Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, USA
  • 5Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand
  • 6Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Palisades, USA

The occurrence of slow slip events (SSEs) in subduction zones has been proposed to be linked to the presence of, and fluctuations in near-lithostatic fluid pressures (Pf) within the megathrust shear zone and subducting oceanic crust. In particular, the 'fault-valve' model is commonly used to describe occasional, repeated breaching of a low-permeability interface shear zone barrier, which caps an overpressured hydrothermal fluid reservoir. In this model, a precursory increase in fluid pressure may therefore be anticipated to precede megathrust rupture. Resulting activation of fractures during slip opens permeable pathways for fluid migration and fluid pressure decreases once more, until the system becomes sealed and overpressure can re-accumulate. While the priming conditions for cyclical valving behaviour have been observed at subduction zones globally, and evidence for post-megathrust rupture drainage exists, physical observations of precursory fluid pressure increases, and subsequent decreases, particularly within the subducting slab where hydrothermal fluids are sourced, remain elusive.

Here we use earthquake focal mechanisms recorded on an ocean-bottom seismic network to identify changes in the stress tensor within subducting oceanic crust during four SSEs in New Zealand’s Northern Hikurangi subduction zone. We show that the stress, or shape ratio, which describes the relative magnitudes of the principal compressive stress axes, shows repeated decreases prior to, and rapid increases during the occurrence of geodetically documented SSEs. We propose that these changes represent precursory accumulation and subsequent release of fluid pressure within overpressured subducting oceanic crust via a ‘valving’ model for megathrust slip behaviour. Our observations indicate that the timing of slow slip events on subduction megathrusts may be controlled by cyclical accumulation of fluid pressure within subducting oceanic crust.

Our model is further supported by observations of seismicity preceding a large SSE in the northern Hikurangi Margin in 2019, captured by ocean-bottom seismometers and absolute pressure recorders. Observations of microseismicity during this period indicate that a stress state conducive to vertical fluid flow was present in the downgoing plate prior to SSE initiation, before subsequently returning to a down-dip extensional state following the SSE. We propose this precursory seismicity is indicative of fluid migration towards the interface shear zone from the lower plate fluid reservoir, which may have helped triggering slip on the megathrust.

We also present preliminary results of a moment tensor study to investigate spatial and temporal patterns in earthquake source properties in SSE regions along the Hikurangi Margin. In particular, earthquakes near Porangahau – a region susceptible to dynamic triggering of tremor and where shallow SSEs occur every 5 years or so – exhibit distinctly lower double couple components than elsewhere along the margin. We attribute this to elevated fluid pressures within the crust here, which is consistent with recent observations of high seismic reflectivity from an autocorrelation study. Such high fluid pressure may control the broad range of seismic and aseismic phenomena observed at Porangahau.

How to cite: Warren-Smith, E., Fry, B., Wallace, L., Chon, E., Henrys, S., Sheehan, A., Mochizuki, K., Schwartz, S., Woods, K., Ristau, J., and Webb, S.: Episodic stress tensor and fluid pressure cycling in subducting oceanic crust during Northern Hikurangi slow slip events, EGU General Assembly 2020, Online, 4–8 May 2020, EGU2020-12087,, 2020


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